June 2017, Issue #5
Making Kin: Part II

Lise Weil

AfterWord Kathleen Dean Moore’s GREAT TIDE RISING: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change* (Counterpoint Press, 2016)

This may be the most important book of nonfiction I have read in recent memory. Glutton for naming-things-as they-are that I am, it was definitely among the most nourishing. Moore’s subject is our situation as humans in a world on the brink of unimaginable and possibly horrific change brought on entirely by our way of life. A philosopher, Moore ponders the moral implications of this situation. A naturalist—not the armchair kind, but the kind who sleeps under the stars in cold, wet and wind—she details the landscapes and seascapes we are so rapidly losing along with their residents, and she does so with a poet’s gift for language. I have not encountered before this combination of razorsharp philosophical clarity, scientific precision, and poetic intimacy.

Above all this book is a wake-up call, of the most vehement kind. Remarkably, it was written before the new U.S. administration took over (though Rex Tillerson shows up twice). If they read books, if they had the capacity to respond, I would want it put in in the hands of every member of that administration, of every Republican congressman and senator in office, as I can’t help feeling it could soften the hardest of hearts. That’s because it is so palpably driven by love: unbridled love for the inexpressibly beautiful world we are losing, and also for Moore’s young grandchildren, who are already cognizant of those losses (the book opens with her three-year-old grandson fingering a dead starfish). But make no mistake: this love is not tame or domesticated. This is love that rages, that expresses itself most eloquently as outrage.

…this world is astonishing, irreplaceable, essential, beautiful and fearsome, generative, and beyond human understanding…This is the wonder-filled world that we are destroying, the lyric voices that we are silencing, the sanctity that we are defiling, at a rate and with a violence that cannot be measured because we have only the paltriest understanding of the world’s multitude of lives.

Moore suggests instead of “Anthropocene” we name this age we are entering the “Obscene era. The name is from the Latin: ob- (heap onto) and caenum (filth).” Her outrage is directed in part at our silence in the face of this obscenity. Talking about it, feeling it, Moore writes, would mean we “have to turn away from [our] glittering lives.” Talk of adaptation is part and parcel of the obscenity. As CEO of Exxon, Rex Tillerson insisted: “we can adapt to climate change.” Moore exposes this as the cynical, self-serving lie it is. Who is this ‘we’? she asks. “Is it African children on failing farms? Is it northern people on melting ice? Is it coastal residents of Bangladesh? Or is it Rex Tillerson, who earned $40.3 million last year?” ‘Adaptation’ projects allow “the privileged [to] use their power and money to try to shield themselves from the worst consequences of their own excess while imposing the costs of climate change on the disenfranchised and displaced.” ‘Adaptation’ means the vanishing of entire species and ecosystems. It means giving up on even trying to mitigate any of the losses. We humans made this mess. Now we throw up our hands and say everyone has to live with it?

The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to climate change in April; its focus was exclusively on adaptation. “We’re not debating if climate change exists, or measuring its impacts, but telling stories about how we will—or might—adapt to its effects,” explains the editor. As if stories about how we might ward off its most catastrophic impacts did not exist, or were of no interest. “The most miserable truth about this moment of the Anthropocene is the inevitability of it all,” writes Samanth Subranamian, whose essay describes ingenious plans to build both up and down in land-starved Singapore. Jon Mooallem speaks for the other contributors when he asks, “How do we live with the fact that the world we know is going and, in some cases, already gone?” “Pretty damn well,” would seem to be the answer, as he goes on to demonstrate our seemingly infinite capacity, as humans, for normalizing and absorbing the catastrophic. The message is reinforced by the “glittering lives” displayed in giant ads on every other page of the magazine.

The root problem, I am convinced after reading Great Tide Rising, is not lack of knowledge. Most of us in industrial growth societies know on some level how violent is the effect of our way of life on our habitat and the nonhuman creatures we share it with. In fact we’ve compiled an impressive amount of documentation of the damage. But we don’t really feel what we know—or what we feel is not commensurate with that knowing. Moore confesses to lapsing into this kind of denial herself …sometimes I forget to grieve. Sometimes I take it for given that this is the way of the world. I forget the call to life, the urgency to continue that is built into every plant and animal, the reaching toward life. I forget that in a different world, a better world, this level of human-caused destruction would be unthinkable.

Part of what prevents us from feeling what we know, Moore suggests, is not wanting to fall into despair. But despair, she points out, results from not feeling enough. If this is so, then reading Great Tide Rising is a certain cure. Moore gets us to feel with her: rage, outrage, and , inevitably, grief. Along with her we mourn the dependable comings and goings–of birds, of flowers, of fruit, of seasons.

This year the swallows came back to Oregon before winter was finished. They followed the coast, where the weather is usually mild and mayflies are hatching in the ponds. But a terrible late-winter storm blew in and there were no insects in that wind. Have you seen a starved swallow, swinging by its claws, upside down from a wire? Have you seen the frozen eye of a swallow?

Along with her, we mourn—and remember—the places and creatures that will never return.

I remember when there was a meadow, complete with meadowlarks, where there is now an asphalt parking lot for the new Home Depot. I remember the clam flat where there is now a liquid natural gas terminal on rock fill at the end of Newport Bay&hellip:.I remember the heron rookery on the headland where there is now a subdivision called the Rookery.

The dark, ferny-kneed forest and shy owls, the soft trails, the smell of pine and bracken are gone-maybe gone forever from a sizzling hot future. I don’t know how to bear the dead weight of this sorrow and of this shame.

I have often thought I would obsess less about climate change and our ongoing desecration of the earth if I had children. I listen to the family upstairs–the little girl’s peeling laughter–and imagine how reassuring it must be, how like a guarantee of continuation. Laughter like this tells us all is well, or allows us to feel it, at least in the moment. As both a mother and grandmother, Moore seems to know this state of grace, to dwell in it often. But this does nothing to allay her own fear or dread. One of the most poignant stories Moore tells is of a family Christmas tree expedition. Instead of snow there is rain and the family is clad in yellow rainslickers. Out in the field, they choose the most beautiful tree they can find. As grandpa chops it down they all yell “Timber” –and granddaughter Zoey promptly bursts into tears. That night the child awakens crying and her mother comforts her: “don’t be afraid.” But I knew that on this deep and starless night, Moore writes, the whole world was awake and afraid. The child’s fears were the world’s night terrors. Under a half moon, cattle licked dust in the desert. Bedrock dissolved in the acid sea. Blue ice fell at the ends of the Earth. Saltwater snicked over seawalls. We grown-ups had pronounced the world good, perfect in every detail, and then we had severed it from its roots and hauled it away. Maybe we had already twisted the great swirling skies into storms that would change the world forever.

What, then, should we do? How should we be? How should we live? There is no shortage of answers in this book, and they range from the abstract to the very practical, from small- to large-scale. One change that would fundamentally alter everything, Moore writes, would be to replace a worldview of separation with one of kinship, to understand that we are not lonely lords but rather kin in a family of living things, aware in a world of awarenesses, alive in a world of lives…. How complicated and layered and open-ended this kinship of humans with all of natural creation actually is, this beautiful, bewildering family.

For five hundred years, Moore argues, Western civilization has been living in an adolescent superhero comic book, the sort of cartoon fantasy of planetary subjugation and mastery that stirs the loins of teenage boys and Wall Street bankers. That this fantasy is now being consummated orgiastically in the White House cannot erase what so many of us know in our bones: That story is over. It is a failed experiment. The world doesn’t work that way.

We are at a hinge point in history–and the challenge of this moment, an outgrowth of recognizing kinship, is to align [our] ethics with the ways of the Earth. Doing so will require creative change in the very ideas of what it means to be a human being… It will call everything into question: our current capitalist economic systems, our educational systems, our food production systems, our systems of land use and ownership. It calls us to re-examine what it means to be happy and what it means to be smart.

There may be no ultimate refuge from fear and dread, but one of our tasks now, as destruction threatens so much that we love, is to create refugia… places of safety where life endures, where ideas are sheltered and encouraged to grow. “Refugia” is the term scientists coined for those small places in the blast zone that were spared the devastation when Mt. Saint Helens exploded in 1980. Here, a bed of moss and deer fern under a rotting log. There, under a boulder, a patch of pearly everlasting and the tunnel to a vole’s musty nest. …We can create small pockets of flourishing, and we can make ourselves into overhanging rock ledges to protect life, so that the full measure of possibility can spread and reseed the world.

But even as we seek out and create pathways of refuge and regeneration, new ways to live, we can and we must bear witness to crimes against nature both large and small, and to the miraculous life forms we are losing.

Let us be chroniclers of loss. Let no species disappear without public notice. If our ways of life are going to destroy infinitudes of lives, let us at least do it knowingly, and grieve for the terrible absence.

Of course we need to stand up to companies and governments, to call them and ourselves to account. But first and foremost, we must feel what is happening to our world. From these feelings, Moore suggests, creative forms of protest will arise—activism in the form of ritual. Fill the forests with death notices. Transform every stump in the clearcut into a cross, so no one can drive by a bare-ass hillside without seeing it for what it is- a graveyard that stretches for miles. Let the roadsides bloom with shrines adorned with flowers to mark the extinctions of sparrows. ..Send an obituary to the newspaper each spring, when the frogs do not sing. …Assemble the choir and sing hymns as the bulldozers gouge out the last checker lilies in the valley…Rent a hearse and follow the truck that sprays poisons in the ditches….

Above all, Moore insists, we must not turn away. We will understand that we are daughters of the Earth, pulled from her spinning surface. And so we will take on the duties of the moon. We will not look away. The shadow of the Earth will pass over our faces, but it will not erase us; at the edge of that moving shadow, our faces, our characters, will be most clearly seen. We will reflect the light that comes to us from the darkest spaces of the night.

Great Tide Rising is itself a luminous act of bearing witness, and a grand refugia of the imagination. Under its shelter, inspired by its example, may we humans come together in the one thing that has the power to change history—a great rising wave of moral outrage at the plunder and the wreckage, and an affirmation of a better way…


Lise Weil

Lise Weil is editor of Dark Matter Women Witnessing. She was founder and editor of the US feminist review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991) and co-founder of its online offshoot Trivia: Voices of Feminism, which she edited through 2011 and which is now published by an editorial collective at the U of Arizona ( www.triviavoices.com ). Her memoir, In Search of Pure Lust, will be published by Shewrites Press in 2018. She lives in Montreal.

Lise teaches in Goddard College’s Graduate Institute. She recently edited Teaching Transformation: Progressive Education in Action, a collection of essays by visionary faculty, students and alumni. Goddard’s embodied pedagogy is a profound challenge to the hierarchical, dissociative structures of traditional education and is medicine for an ailing world. Elizabeth Minnich: "It is my profound conviction, an increasingly urgent one, that this book…ought be read and talked about as widely as possible." Download it for free at https://worldsofchange.com/book/ Or order through Amazon for $15.